WHOO COOKS FOR YOU???

Late last summer, while relaxing down by the creek, it suddenly occurred to me that there were an unusual number of birds flitting about the trees. Birds down by the water were mostly observed on an individual basis, as they were more often gathered at the feeders up by the house. The sound of the waterfall would usually drown out their song. On this particular late afternoon, however, they were darting in and out of the trees, their voices heard over the sound of the water. There were hundreds of them. Their voices were almost deafening.

I knew something was wrong, this was not a usual occurrence. I watched their comings and goings, and deduced that they were definitely upset about something. Aha! I thought, there must be a predator in that tree! I’ll bet there is a black snake up there. My eyes skimmed the tree at the base of the falls, up and down, looking for the culprit, but saw no snake.

"No, wait," I told myself. "Look a little to the left." And there was the offender! Almost directly over my head, sitting on a dead limb over the water sat a huge great horned owl. I think he was just there to catch frogs, but the birds had different ideas. They darted at him, just narrowly grazing his head. I have no idea how long he had been sitting there, but it seems as soon as I discovered his presence, off he flew silently. And then everything went back to normal.

WOW! Here was the magnificent bird I had been hearing in the woods at night, with his haunting “WHOO COOKS FOR YOU” chant, back and forth to another owl. And an occasional screech here and there over the years. I had never seen an owl up close before, except for the Indian powwow at the Rhinebeck Fairgrounds, where a raptor expert had one chained to a tree limb for all to see. The bird's eyes were a bright orange. I was mesmerized.

Over the years, hearing the owls through the night always made me smile in my sleep. One evening, however, the sound seemed different, beyond a screech. I thought it sounded like a young animal in distress. There was some cackling, a hoot, and a screech. The next day I mentioned it to friends of mine who live up the road. They had heard the same sounds that previous night. We were excited that we both had heard the same thing!

They were having friends over for a late summer dinner party, and had almost the same experience as I had: birds screeching and darting at a tree in their yard. Investigating, Gary went to look up into the tree and there it was, another owl. Of course, they and their guests were thrilled. While their dinner party continued, their next door neighbor was out throwing a Frisbee with his children and two owls swooped in to chase the disk! Now it is certainly a treat to just see one of these birds but three at a time was a real treat for all. It is possible that it was a mother and her owlets.

Often times you may see an owl being chased by crows. The great horned owl is the arch enemy of the crow. It raids their nests during the night. Owls hunt at night. They will often be seen near human activity, what with our bird feeders and garbage that attracts rodents, they have some easy pickings. Owls have keen hearing, and eyesight that can focus from telescopic to microscopic in a millisecond. Their eyes cannot move, so they use the flexibility of their neck for peripheral vision. But their heads do not completely rotate around as some would like to believe.

Some species of owls do not build nests, but will roost in the fork of tree limbs. Often times you will find them in white pine trees that are full and fluffy, hiding themselves during the day. I have visited a site in a park where, if I circle around a pine tree or two, sure enough I’ll find a treasure: an owl pellet. Owl pellets look like a little gray felt egg, just slightly larger than a robin’s egg. If you break one open you may find the perfectly preserved skeleton of a mole or mouse. Owls eat fish, frogs, snakes, rodents and other birds. One time on PBS, I saw footage of an orange tabby cat meandering atop a stone wall, and an owl swooped down and carried it away! That made me shudder to think of my cat disappearing into the air, thus I keep him inside!

Although there are more than 100 species of owls, the ones we commonly see or hear are the great horned, the barred, and barn owls, screech owl, and short eared owl. Some species are endangered such as the barn owl. Well let's face it, there are fewer open buildings and barns these days.

I thought that when I had left my home by the creek that the magic would not happen any longer. I feared I would have nothing to write about! But the first night in my new digs, I was shaken out of sleep by one or more owls just outside my window above my head. I must use the phrase from The Night Before Christmas: “There arose such a clatter” for I jumped and so did the cat, and the dog set to barking. It sounded as if the owls were dissecting something only a few feet away! Magic does not need to occur in only one place in our lives. It is everywhere. If we can be open and receptive, it'll follow us wherever we live. There is always a story to tell.

Have you had a profound animal encounter in your backyard? We would love to tell your tale. Please contact me through this website if you would like to share an experience you have had in nature in your backyard.



Pat Laine is a 9 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her Maine Coon cat and collie dog. Whether walking in the woods, or along Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, she observes the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.



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